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Living in Germany

Sexism, Xenophobia & Racism in Germany

This article aims to give an overview of discrimination in the form of sexism and racism in Germany and how it affects the daily lives and wellbeing of the various social groups which are discriminated against.

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Xenophobia and Racism in Germany

Due to Germany’s fascist past, this form of discrimination both hits the German public very hard and attracts a lot of attention in the international media. The most brutal and insidious form of racism in Germany, leading to racist hate crimes, are occasional violent attacks of right-wing extremist groups on what they define as “foreign-looking” people, i.e. asylum seekers, immigrant workers, practicing Muslims, people of African or Asian origin etc.

In the 1980s and 1990s, racism in Germany had a peak period. There was general outrage about arson attacks by skinheads on refugee housing, which resulted in the murder of several foreigners. Since then, there have been more cases of violent racism in Germany in the form of grievous bodily harm, manslaughter, and murder committed by right-wing extremists. However, as callous as this might sound, these horrifying hate crimes are rare, statistically speaking. The general public tends to react with shock and grief; this has also led to some open and honest debates about xenophobia and racism in Germany.

Despite lots of expressions of goodwill by the average German citizen, racism in Germany is still alive. For example, there is an active Neo-Nazi scene. Their less openly violent representatives organize themselves in several right-wing parties, particularly the NPD. They are trying very hard to make themselves “presentable”. Inn poor regions with a high level of unemployment, it is particularly easy to generate resentment against people perceived as outsiders. It is mostly in these regions that some Neo-Nazis have even been elected to a few regional parliaments.

The Verfassungsschutz – one of Germany’s intelligence services – keeps both right-wing parties and skinhead circles under constant observation. According to their estimates, there is a hard core of about 25,000 right-wing extremists in Germany. They often try to recruit teens and young adults to their “cause”. Racism in Germany is supported among 2-3% of the population.

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Religious Discrimination

The circles propagating racism in Germany often incite anti-Semitism and Islamophobia as well. Given the unspeakable crimes of the Holocaust, anti-Semitism (which mostly expresses itself in verbal slurs or vandalism against Jewish cemeteries and synagogues) is taken very seriously in Germany. Nonetheless, Jewish life doesn’t feel quite “normal” for some 100,000 Jews living in Germany today. Because of a justified fear of those few right-wing splinter groups, synagogues and their visitors often require regular surveillance. While they receive support and sympathy from German law enforcement and German citizens active in anti-discrimination projects, the fact that they need protection is irrefutable.

Islamophobia, on the other hand, seems to be a socially far more acceptable form of racism in Germany. While there has never been a genuine terror panic in Germany after 9/11, terrorist attacks worldwide have put Germany’s Muslim population under increased scrutiny. Many Germans associate Islam with fundamentalism and religiously motivated violence, and plans by Islamic associations to erect proper mosques in some major German cities have sparked heated debates and prolonged resistance from local residents. In Cologne, these discussions were exploited by a right-wing populist initiative; it attempted (and partially succeeded) to make right-wing extremism more palatable by toning it down just enough to work within a democratic framework.

The Situation for Expats

Generally speaking, however, one can say that  discrimination based on race and religion in Germany will, in all likelihood, not affect expats by putting them in any physical danger. Your German colleagues and neighbors will treat you politely. Remember that a certain degree of aloofness is quite typical for Germans interacting with people they don’t know very well. But it is by no means unusual to hear the occasional expression of right-wing populist sentiments and “ironic” or “jocular” racism in Germany, or to experience verbal harassment in places like the club scene. How to deal (or not to deal) with such incidents of racism in Germany has to be decided on an individual basis, and other expats may be able to offer their advice.

Just like discrimination on the basis of race, origin, descent, and religious beliefs is prohibited by article 3 of the German Constitution, the same paragraph outlaws discrimination against anyone on account of their gender. There were quite a few legal obstacles on the way to gender equality in Germany: For example, it took another nine years after the draft of the constitution until Germany’s civil code was adjusted. Before that, married women (and not the husband) could dispose of their own income. Since 1977 married women are legally allowed to accept a job even if their husband doesn’t agree with their employment.

Domestic violence, spousal rape, and forced marriages are criminalized and carry severe punishments. Between 7,000 and 8,000 cases of serious sexual coercion are reported every year. According to a survey of the European Union Agency of Fundamental Rights, 35% of all German women older than 18 years of age have experienced legally relevant forms of sexual assault (e.g. groping, harassment, stalking, abuse, rape).

However, the likelihood of assault by an unknown perpetrator is far lower than intimate violence by someone the woman interacts with in a social setting or has/had a sexual or romantic relationship with. Random attacks and rapes unfortunately do happen, though, and German authorities often repeat the usual safety tips for women listed below, even if they put the responsibility for preventing a crime on the potential victim, i.e.

  • Avoid neighborhoods which you don’t know or which make you feel uncomfortable.
  • Take one or two female friends with you when you go out at night.
  • Watch your drinks.
  • Return home in a taxi by an accredited taxi company.
  • Ask them if they can provide another woman as the taxi driver.

Who to Turn to

Most German cities also offer emergency hotlines for the victims of sexual harassment or assault, which take incidents of intimate partner violence or domestic violence very seriously. You can find a German-only search engine for such local support groups on the website of Frauen gegen Gewalt e.V.. (The awareness of men as victims of domestic violence, on the other hand, is rather low. There are very few institutions for men in domestic crisis situations in Germany.) If you should ever become the victim of such a crime and decide to report it to the German police (call 110), ask your embassy for help, too. The diplomatic staff can provide you with an interpreter and aid you to get medical and legal assistance.

“Casual” Sexism

In general, Germany is a fairly safe country for women, though. Today, sexual discrimination and gender inequalities are present in subtle, far less tangible forms. For example, traditional gender roles and conceptions of motherhood may be responsible for the lack of daycare facilities for working mothers, there is a noticeable pay gap in the workplace, and objections to inappropriate language or sexist remarks that can create a hostile climate in social situations are often dismissed as jokes. What may be a bit of off-color fun for one woman may be an uncomfortable violation of personal boundaries for another one, and it is not easy to deal with such dilemmas.

Updated on: December 11, 2019
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